Teresa Sanders walks up to an apartment in Midtown Detroit on a Saturday afternoon, with a clipboard in hand and flyers about a free legal clinic happening later that day for people facing eviction and ways to get rental assistance. She buzzes in to try and reach the tenant, whom she says could be evicted this week but gets no response.
“He needs this paperwork so bad,” said Sanders, a renters and tenant organizer with local community organization Detroit Action, who is going door-to-door to get renters on the verge of eviction the help they need to stay housed.
Sanders leaves the materials on the tenant’s patio. She hops into her car and drives off to the next apartment, hitting five more units that afternoon and leaving flyers where she can — slipped under doors, in lobbies, and near mailboxes. All the while, she references a list of 159 addresses for people who could be evicted soon. She prefers talking to tenants directly and connecting them with resources, but she didn’t reach anyone on Saturday.
“That’s all we can do,” she says as she leaves materials near one mailbox, suggesting that residents may be out on a Saturday afternoon.
Sanders’ door-to-door outreach is part of a broader push by a coalition of five Detroit nonprofits to connect renters with resources to stay housed, including funds to wipe away back rent and legal counsel. The group is taking a grassroots approach — leaving information at doors and working with local businesses — especially now that a moratorium on residential evictions has been lifted in place for roughly a year. Millions of dollars in federal rent aid are available.
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“The resources are there for the moment. You have to connect the resources to the people,” said Tonya Myers Phillips, director of community partnerships and development at the Sugar Law Center and public policy adviser for Michigan Legal Services, one of the organizations that is part of the outreach effort.
She said that people may not know resources exist, and they may lack internet access, adding that the application process to tap into federal aid can be long and laden with paperwork.
“The overall goal is to reach Detroiters where they’re at and to get information to Detroiters about eviction rental assistance that’s available, legal representation that’s available, and also invite individuals and residents into the process for implementing long-term solutions in the city of Detroit,” she said.
In August, five Detroit-based organizations received an $80,000 one-year grant from the National Low Income Housing Coalition to expand eviction prevention, as thousands of people in metro Detroit reported housing instability.
Between Sept. 15 and Sept. 27, more than 116,000 households in the Detroit, Warren, and Dearborn areas said they could face eviction or foreclosure, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
Last month, the city of Detroit — expecting a surge of eviction cases — launched a three-pronged plan to keep people housed: free legal counsel for tenants in court from six months to a year, federal dollars for past-due rent and utilities, and a chance to find a job through a city program.
The 36th District Court has also said it anticipates an increase in eviction orders and new filings now that the moratorium is no longer in place. The U.S. Supreme Court, in late August, struck down the federal moratorium on evictions enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic and later extended to give states more time to get billions of dollars in emergency rent aid out to tenants and landlords.
Nationally, the pace of getting relief dollars into the hands of tenants and landlords has been slow, although it picked up in August. Michigan has paid out $276 million of the $622 million allocated to the state earlier this year. More than 100,000 people have applied to a program to help with back rent and utilities, and roughly 44,000 applications were approved, according to the Michigan State Housing Authority, the agency responsible for allocating the dollars through housing agencies across the state.
Wayne County has consistently seen the lion’s share of applications, with more than 35,000 people signing up for help. Organizers describe evictions in Detroit before the pandemic as a “crisis” and say low-income renters need legal representation baked into the court process.
In 2019, more than 10,000 writs of eviction were signed in the 36th District Court, and in 2020, that number dropped to 2,428, the court said in July. A study from the University of Michigan found that eviction filings in the pandemic — between April and December 2020 — fell 65%, compared with the same time in 2019. The decrease was because of safety nets such as eviction moratoriums, legal aid, and rent assistance, researchers found in the June report.